The customer marketing and sales journey of today look almost nothing like the customer journey of the recent past. Instead, experiences are largely (but not entirely) digital, take place on multiple parallel channels, and are both more personal and less linear than ever before.

As the customer journey has become more complex and increasingly digitized, it’s more important than ever for brands to understand and interpret the data that is generated along the way. This data is essential to uncovering the key “customer moments” that drive — or halt — conversions and sales. Discerning and intentional data analysis is also essential to standing up a modern sales and customer management engine that’s firing on all cylinders in an increasingly virtual environment.

Nowadays, the stakes could hardly be higher.

More than ever, successful brands are those that recognize and adapt to the shifting customer journey early, often in response to feedback from customers or sales leaders. “Adapting” here means not just harnessing data to better inform sales processes. It also means investing in the wholesale digital transformation that every business will need to take on sooner or later.

“In the past, we have received concerns from our entrepreneurs and sales leaders that they did not have the necessary support to meet their business needs,” says Joe Sueper, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Nu Skin Enterprises. “These concerns came from a lack of integration of our functions and inefficiencies in our processes. This realization led to the beginning of our digital transformation in 2019.”

It’s become increasingly clear that successful brands will need to initiate a data-driven overhaul of the customer journey. Critically, they will also need to identify (and document) those key decision-making moments that make all the difference. Finally, decisions about future marketing will need to be made based upon objective, quantifiable data. “This is how we’ve always done it” just won’t cut it in an economy struggling to right itself after 18 months of tumult. Listed below are five evolving realities business leaders need to keep in mind as they seek to innovate.

Here are 5 ways how data can help put customers first:

1. Recognize that the customer journey begins earlier than we thought

The modern customer journey begins well before customer decisions actually show up in data that brands collect using on-page website analytics. We can see these very early stages only indirectly, primarily through search interest for relevant terms.

Social media listening software can also pick up on brand-related chatter and provide the savvy sales and marketing team with reliable information about current trends. Even so, it can be challenging to tie these sources of helpful information directly to the brand’s bottom line.

All that being so — brands will need to get out ahead of the customer journey, all the same. Brands can accomplish this by investing in awareness-generating channels. These typically include paid search ads for terms that are known to precede awareness-stage actions and market positioning (a.k.a. thought leadership) leveraging platforms popular with prospects.

2. Prospects are generally willing to share their data when there’s something in it for them

Prospective customers have increasingly internalized the proposition that “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” They’re understandably wary about consenting to data collection efforts — those that they can control, anyway — as a result. Successful brands are those that acknowledge this increased wariness and counter it with tangible benefits.

A large percentage of prospective customers are surprisingly onboard with sharing their data once they’ve been convinced that there’s something in it for them. This works to the advantage of brands that “tell it like it is” — not burying their data use policies in fine print but articulating in plain English how their information improves the buying experience. Transparency will yield a measurable impact on a visitor’s willingness to provide access to personal data.

3. “Showrooming” is real — and location data helps make sense of it

Collecting location data is controversial, to say the least. Prospective customers are easily scared off when interacting online with brands that seem to know way too much about them. However, there’s a way to leverage discoverable location information without turning off prospects. The key to how location data can help lies in utilizing it to deliver an enhanced experience. But, it only helps when those opportunities arise organically and you resist any temptation to prematurely “herd” visitors.

Instead, a more winsome approach will use techniques that involve deploying and measuring engagement. And, this is accomplished with ads that are geofenced around competitors’ physical locations or local markets. For digital retail brands, this shines a light on the practice of showrooming and may help serve more relevant messages to prospects in the early stages of the customer journey.

4. “Self-serve” is a thing now, and qualitative, prospect-provided data provides a window into the thinking of would-be buyers

In many industries, many or most prospects — and customers, in some cases — prefer “self-serve” brand interactions. They prefer to complete the customer journey at their own speed, using the touchpoints they prefer, with minimal human interaction. In contexts where customer relationships tend to recur, they also prefer to manage those relationships on their own terms. Additionally, their expectations also match.

“Advancements in technology allow consumers the convenience of getting the products and services they want, on-demand. However, customers have higher expectations, so it’s now more difficult than ever to convince them of the value you’re offering while competing with other brands,” says Michael Brenner, founder and CEO of Marketing Insider Group.

These increased expectations highlight the importance of mid-and late-journey inputs such as live chat and helpdesk/knowledge base searches. Brands that consistently see similar questions or issues come up in these channels can identify “negative moments.” These moments are often sticking points. This is because they can hinder the customer journey and reduce conversion rates. In order to maximize the ways data can help brands, it should go without saying that effectively addressing these sticking points should be among any brand’s highest priorities.

By integrating frequently-requested answers into website copy, creating content marketing that aims to address these sticking points before they become problematic, and training customer contact associates to address them, these same brands can stand out from the competition in a marketplace characterized by high (but not unreasonable) customer expectations.

5. Big Data enables the mapping of every possible customer journey permutation — and the creation of bespoke pathways

Big Data makes it possible today to map every possible permutation of a given brand’s customer journey. This level of granularity simply wasn’t possible even 15 years ago. With that level of granularity, though, it’s often tempting to overstep. Therefore, it might be helpful to keep in mind that just because something is possible doesn’t necessarily mean that it is advisable.

To paraphrase a popular sentiment, with great capability comes great responsibility. More than ever, “self-serve” customers — and those exhibiting more traditional behaviors — expect consistency and clarity throughout the customer journey.

“Customer journeys are increasingly complex, but your customers expect every interaction with your organization to reflect the context of their entire experience regardless of which touchpoint they use next,” says Steve Offsey, marketing lead at Pointillist, in his deep-dive into customer journey analytics.

By mapping every possible variation on the customer journey, analytics data can help brands understand more. These things include how different types of prospects move from one channel or stage to the next. In addition, with these analytics measuring differential conversion rates for each pathway, brands can identify challenges that may reduce sales. As Offsey puts it: “It’s only when you look at a customer’s journeys across channels and time that real pain points — and therefore opportunities for positive impact — arise.”

Start identifying the customer moments that matter

Until recently, it was impossible to say for certain which moment proved decisive in any given customer’s buying decision. For customers, the journey was a personal one, if not entirely private. For businesses, many points in the customer journey were shrouded in mystery. As a result, these businesses only had partial glimpses of customers’ thought processes to illuminate their shape and length.

This is no longer the case. However, it’s still not possible to identify the precise moment at which any particular customer chooses to convert. That’s still a private, personal decision.

However, big data integrated into a cloud-first sales and customer experience engine makes it possible to identify the probable point of conversion. And, more importantly, this integration makes it possible to understand the touchpoints the customer passed along the way. In short, we can now identify the customer moments that matter with a hitherto unknown level of accuracy and reliability.

This shift represents a massive advantage for businesses that understand its value. Additionally, these businesses appreciate the need to use data to identify and address weaker conversion points. Is your business among them? It needs to be. You simply can’t afford to continue doing things the old way.

Take a deeper dive into what you’ve learned here on how data can help. Then, begin designing a data-driven system that illuminates the customer journey and lets you serve prospects, customers and your team better than ever before. The results will delight you, just as they delight your customers.

Image credit: lukas; pexels; thank you!